Worksite: The Disappearing American Strike

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A strike in New York City, 1937

NARA

A strike in New York City, 1937

Many explanations have been offered for the lack of growth in real wages earned by American workers over the past few decades. One that deserves more attention is the fact that workers walk out far less often.

In 2014 there were 11 strikes in the United States involving more than 1,000 workers, tied with 2010 for second fewest since 1947, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began counting. The lowest number—five strikes—was recorded in 2009.

It’s well documented that there has been a sharp decrease in the number of people who belong to labor unions. But the decrease in strike activity actually outpaces the overall decline in unionization. The rate of union membership is half what it was in 1983, for instance, but the number of strikes is down by 86 percent since then. That disparity probably reflects the fact that as private-sector union membership has tanked, a larger share of the unionized workforce is in the public sector, where binding arbitration and other mechanisms prevent workers from striking.

Whether you’re a customer or a worker, strikes aren’t fun. But they are a tool for workers to exert their power over the terms of their employment, including wages. And even workers who don’t strike can benefit from job actions that raise the going wage in their industry.

According to BLS, as of last month there was but one major strike in the United States—at Marathon Petroleum Corp., a refinery company in Texas where 1,100 members of the United Steelworkers walked in February and returned in early July.

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